Vitalijs Astafjevs: The most famous player you’ve never heard of

“I remember receiving the ball in space from the right back. I took one touch to steady myself and shot from outside the box. It was a good finish but yes, it was a bit lucky. Of course it was lucky, it was the first goal.”

Unless you were one of a handful of spectators at the Við Djúpumýrar Stadium in Klaksvik, Faroe Islands on the evening of August 19th 1992 then this description is the closest you are going to get to a piece of genuine European football history.

FC Skonto Riga’s Vitalijs Astafjevs was there. It was his 18-yard finish that flashed past KI Klaksvik goalkeeper Jákup Mikkelsen into the bottom corner to put the Latvian champions ahead after 28 minutes. “I remember it like it was yesterday,” says the scorer of the Champions League’s first ever goal.

In the summer of 1992 Europe was rocking with change. The collapse of the federal communist states and a tide of new countries flooding the UEFA ranks meant a new format for European competition, and fresh frontiers to be traversed for clubs around the continent. One of them was Astafjevs’ Skonto.

“It was the first time we’d been to play competitively abroad,” remembers the man who would later captain Latvia to the 2004 European Championship in Portugal. “The football was unrecognisable from what we’d been used to at home. But it meant more than just that. It was the first time any of us had visited such an exotic country as the Faroe Islands.”

The Champions League wasn’t just about new money and greater exposure for the biggest clubs. The change was seismic, and was felt from top to bottom throughout the European game.

“Of course we knew we were part of something really new; you could feel it,” says Astafjevs fondly. “Suddenly we were playing against Chelsea and against Napoli and Inter Milan. It was unheard of for us and just the most incredible time.”

Six years after Klaksvik he was captaining Skonto as they twice took the lead against Barcelona in the Nou Camp. Inter were pushed all the way in Riga; Aberdeen were knocked-out of the UEFA Cup. This was the face of a new Europe, with Astafjevs at its pioneering heart.

By the turn of the millennium European football was more conspicuous than it had ever been before. But if not everyone was fully paying attention to the ripples working their way in from the margins, then that was to change in 2004 when little Latvia cracked the mainstream.

Following a year playing under Ian Holloway at Bristol Rovers, Astafjevs wore the armband as Latvia became the first former Soviet satellite to qualify for a major international championship. “We played very well in the European Championships” he acknowledges. “We definitely surprised a few people.”

A fair point. The continent came to a stand-still as European champions Germany were held 0-0 in Porto, and only a late flourish from the Dutch in their final group game saw Latvia fall-short of a quarter-final berth.

But sidestepping all the underdog headlines, success like this is hard earned. The seeds of this team had been sown 12 years earlier on a summer’s evening in Klaksvik; four of Astafjevs’ team-mates against Germany had played with him in the Champions League’s maiden fixture in the far-away Faroes. The full-back Olegs Blagonadezdins, who in Porto kept the great Bernd Schneider in his pocket, had set him up for his goal.  

“A lot of that team had had the benefit of growing up together at Skonto, but by 2004 we had mostly all moved off around Europe to play at a higher level, and it showed. That was a great team right there. There’s just been a film made here in Latvia about that side.”

Talking to the man who scored such an iconic goal in the game’s history, it’s easy to become swept away by the myth of that night in Klaksvik. But Astafjevs, a staid professional, remains grounded. “It was such a memorable moment for me but I never got carried away. We know our level just like we knew it then.”

Having knocked out KI in 1992 Skonto were themselves despatched comfortably by Poland’s Lech Poznan in the next round, but the man who until recently was Europe’s record international caps-holder has never let the achievement stray far from his thoughts. “It was so memorable for me,” he says again. “Such an exotic place.”

Today Astafjevs assists former Southampton forward and national icon Marian Pahars in running the national team, but the past will take some eclipsing. Having held the dual accolade of first Champions League marksman and long-time international appearance record, there’s a case to be made for Astafjevs as the most famous player you’ve probably never heard of.

His 167th and final appearance for Latvia against China in 2010 came and went without ceremony, exactly as the unassuming captain had always intended; a career that saw him skipper his country in three different decades needed little else to mark it out as unique. He finally surrendered his international record to Spain’s Iker Casillas last year.

“I’ve been hearing a lot from Spanish journalists lately,” Astafjevs laughs as he reflects on being overtaken by a man who won the World Cup and two European Championships. “He’s a fantastic player obviously. But he is a keeper, I am a player,” he adds mischievously.

Latvian football isn’t what it was ten or fifteen years ago, but as Astafjevs is eager to point out neither is Europe. Gaps are opening up at every level, creating a wildly tiered structure that keeps smaller clubs away from the bigger games and the bigger pay-days.

“We played against Barcelona sure, but there’s no chance for a game like that to happen now,” he says.

“I watch the Champions League on TV and I see there is no way a club like Skonto Riga could make it to the group stages. Today the Champions League is not for clubs from Latvia.”    

Vitalijs Astafjevs: The most famous player you’ve never heard of
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